EMILIO ESTEVEZ IS AWFULLY SORRY. HE IS 15 minutes late for brunch at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, and while it would be nice if he could say this sort of thing never happens, he can't. The fact is, this sort of thing does happen from time to time. And not just because the 34-year-old actor is stopped on the street by pint-size fans seeking counsel from the chief Mighty Duck. No, today Estevez is tardy for one reason: he chooses not to wear a watch—or ornamentation of any kind. "I tried wearing a ring for two years," he ruefully says, "and that didn't work."

No sense pushing the point. Estevez was not, he will politely tell you, one of the 160 well-wishers who watched last month as his ex-wife Paula Abdul married husband No. 2. Other than that, husband No. 1 has nothing to say on the matter.

He and Abdul have had little contact since divorcing in 1994 after two years of marriage. There's no ill will, he insists. Life just moves on. "She knows I wish her well," he says.

In any case, Estevez has more pressing matters on his mind. On Nov. 22, his movie The War at Home opens in limited release. He has a lot riding on the tale of a 22-year-old soldier (played by Estevez) who returns from the war in Vietnam only to face another battleground in the middle-class home of his parents (played by his father, Martin Sheen, and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates). War is the first film Estevez has simultaneously directed, produced and starred in. He has a financial stake in the movie, which Disney agreed to help finance as an enticement for him to sign on for this year's D3: The Mighty Ducks. But the studio has yet to give War a big promotional push. "It's not a commercial film," says Sheen, 56. "The studio is reluctant to put money or interest into it, which is very disappointing for Emilio."

Money is not a prime concern for Estevez, whose trio of Mighty Ducks films has grossed some $115 million and paid him about $3 million each. What is on the line for Estevez now is pride. His directorial debut—1986's Wisdom, in which he starred with his then fiancée Demi Moore—barely broke even and was ravaged by critics. And 1990's Men at Work, a comedy he wrote and directed about two garbage-men (played by Estevez and his brother Charlie Sheen), didn't fare much better. "I was young and ego-driven," he says. "I didn't listen to anybody."

This time he kept his ego in check. "Emilio was pretty quiet-spoken," says Bates. "He'd come over and ask a question or say, 'What do you think?' " Indeed, in one scene that calls for him to curse Bates and tell her to "shut up, old woman," it was all he could do to get through his lines. "He felt horrible having to do that," says Bates. "It's an ugly moment, regardless of whether it's real or it's Memorex."

"After every take I'd hug Kathy and say, 'Are you okay?' " Estevez recalls. "She'd say, 'I'm okay. Do your work.' "

But nothing was as demanding as directing his father. Estevez saw Sheen's character as complex and troubled; Sheen saw him as a good guy. Where father saw a small, throw-away scene, son wanted intense emotion. The director may have won out, but both were exhausted by the feelings they wound up tapping. "You know each other's secrets," says Sheen. "You have to take care not to expose some raw wound."

The eldest son of Janet and Martin Sheen (born Ramon Estevez, the actor changed his name more than 30 years ago), Emilio was born in Manhattan. After his father filmed 1970's Catch 22, the family—including Ramon, now 33, Charlie, 31, and Renée, 29, all actors—moved to L.A. Emilio and his siblings often went with Sheen on location—but not always happily. In 1976, when Sheen took him to the Philippines for Apocalypse Now, Emilio grew irritated: "I was going into ninth grade. I had a life that was important to me."

Sheen promised he would be home in time to start classes. But September came and went, and while the thought of hanging out in Manila getting drunk with a buddy ("for the most part I was unsupervised," says Estevez) might appeal to some 14-year-old boys, Emilio wanted to be at Santa Monica High, studying, writing for the paper, playing sports. The confrontation with his father was inevitable. "I took a swing at him," admits Estevez. "A week later I was on a plane."

"I didn't want him to go home," says Sheen of their first and only brawl, "but he was demanding his freedom. It's the story of all fathers and sons."

Back then, Estevez did most of his fighting with his brother Charlie. "We're good friends now," says Estevez with a laugh, "[but] we beat the crap out of each other growing up." Fortunately, most of Emilio's energy was directed toward the stage. In high school he acted in his first play, a drama he cowrote about Vietnam called Echoes of an Era. After graduating, he landed roles on various TV shows and films—most notably in 1984's Repo Man—and became a bona fide member of the Hollywood brat pack, making his mark in such mid-'80s coming-of-age hits as The Breakfast Club.

One thing he had not intended was to make his mark as a father. But in 1984, when he was 22, his then girlfriend, model Carey Salley, gave birth to their son Taylor. "I was still a kid," says Estevez. "It was tough to assume that responsibility." Two years later they had a daughter, Paloma, but soon afterward the relationship fell apart. Although the kids live with Salley, Estevez remains, he says, extremely involved, calling the children "the light of my life." Since then, he has had romances with Demi Moore (they split in 1987), makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff (she married his buddy, actor Rob Lowe, in 1991) and, of course, Abdul.

So he treads gingerly on the topic of his current flame, Julie Briggs, 24, an assistant in a film-production company. Dating since the spring, the two walk on the Malibu beach in front of Estevez's $3 million, four-bedroom Spanish-style home, drink wine and watch movies. "She's very low-maintenance," he says, "which is great. I've had a history of having high-maintenance mates." Not that Estevez isn't happy to shower Briggs with loving attention. "It's just nice," he says with a grin, "to have it reciprocated."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
JOHN HANNAH in Malibu

  • Contributors:
  • John Hannah.